In order to create a new commercial use for raw wool, the Italian association Post Industriale Ruralità (PIR) has developed a form of vertical hydroponic cultivation using wool instead of soil. The woollen substrate is suitable for both outdoor and indoor use. Hydroponic cultivation (which uses water rather than soil) is a technique mostly used in colder countries or places where limited amounts of water are naturally available.
The innovative feature of PIR's system is that it uses sheep wool instead of rock wool, plastic substrate or imported organic fibres (such as coconut fibre). Wool can be used in this way for much of the year because it is an effective insulating agent. Furthermore, when it comes into contact with water it biodegrades rapidly, releasing nitrogen, the main nutrient for plants. In this way, wool changes from waste into a resource.
PIR's hydroponic system is unique. It can be used to produce fresh vegetables for food or decoration and for orthicultural therapy for people with cognitive disabilities.
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The project involves over 30 schools in the province of Brescia (in Italy's Lombardy region) and many shepherds from Valcamonica who actively support the project provide wool for it. A 30 x 3 metre vegetable garden will contain 18 m3 of wool. 9 m3 of wool are disposed of every six months.
The cultivation yields as much as a normal ground crop but uses 50% less water thanks to the drip irrigation system. If the excess water can be recovered, the only water used would be for evapotranspiration, resulting in a reduction of up to 70% in water consumption compared to normal outdoor soil-based cultivation.